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Well read: Local Connecticut bookstores thrive in a digital world

In the fall of 2019, Richard Parent and Paul Listro started out on a brand-new adventure together. The two had spent their adult lives working in New York City’s bustling TV and film industry, Parent as a lawyer and Listro as an accountant, when they realized they wanted to make a change. 

With an apartment in NYC and a home on the Connecticut shore, they decided to switch up where they spent most of their time. Connecticut became their primary residence and after years of helping others run their companies, they decided their new dream was to start their own. After toying with the idea of opening up a wine shop, they settled on embracing their love of books. 

“We love to read,” says Listro. “We’ve always been big readers. It’s part of the beginning of our relationship, we saw we had the same books on our shelves at our apartments.”

Enter Breakwater Books in Guilford and a bit of miraculous timing. 

The couple was originally interested in buying RJ Julia, a much larger local bookstore in nearby Madison, but the owner wasn’t interested in selling. Later that day, their broker told them that Breakwater was on the market.

“I knew this store as a kid,” says Listro, who grew up in East Haven. “And when we heard it was for sale, we said, ‘let’s tell them we’re interested’ and a few weeks later we closed.”

Breakwater has been a staple of the Guilford community for decades (they’re celebrating their 50th year in 2022). Located right in the middle of town, amidst other local shops and restaurants with plenty of foot traffic, it’s exactly the type of place you would expect to find a local bookstore. Since taking over the shop in October 2019, Parent and Listro have made several big changes that they say have helped turn things around.

“We saw an opportunity here because this store was not doing well,” recalls Parent. “But we came in and we saw there were no books in the store. All the books were face out. So we kinda thought, maybe naively, if we get more books, maybe people will come here. And that actually worked.”

The couple added entire sections to the store – including science fiction, graphic novels, LGBTQ, and classics — and filled the surprisingly expansive location with more shelves built by a local woodworking company. 

“Everyone has their own idea of what a book store should be,” says Listro. “And we came in with of our experiences of visiting bookstores and what we wanna see.”

About a year before Richard and Paul made their foray into bookselling, Meghan Hayden was doing the same. With a young son and a 20-year career in corporate America, Hayden says she started thinking about a second act in her life. 

“I wanted to do something that was really community-oriented,” she says. “And I wanted to do something that he could be a part of, and I have always been a reader and a book lover, so a bookstore seemed like a great fit.”

Now, four years later, River Bend Bookshop is a thriving business in the historic district of Glastonbury. Meghan is the first to admit she didn’t really know much about bookselling or publishing as an industry when she started out, but she credits her family’s entrepreneurial spirit with helping get her new venture off the ground.

“We had a start-up year, and a pandemic year, and whatever you would call last year, and so this… Now in here, in 2022, I feel like things are where they’re supposed to be,” says Hayden. “People are in the store, we are doing pop-ups, we’ve got the book truck, we’ve got tons of fun things happening, and it feels good. If we could have another year like this, we’d all be really grateful.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced hundreds of stores to close, independent bookstores were on the rise across the country. More than 800 new stores opened between 2009 and 2019, even while Amazon continued its retail dominance and Borders, one of only a handful of major retail chains, was forced to close for good.

In 2020, independent booksellers made up just 5.4% of all physical book sales in the country, but that was only a 0.6% decline from five years previous. Barnes and Noble, meanwhile, the primary brick-and-mortar retailer in the U.S., dropped from 25% of the market to 20.9%. Amazon, meanwhile, increased its share from 37.7% in 2015 to 54% in 2020 with no signs of slowing down.

Amazon owes much of that success to its deep discounts. The current #1 New York Times Bestseller “Where the Crawdads Sing” is available on the site for less than $10. The same book at your local bookshop will cost you $18. The online retailer can afford to part with their books at nearly half price for a few reasons. First, they don’t need to turn a big profit on books because they sell such a wide variety of items, they can make up any losses elsewhere. Second, Amazon is such a behemoth in the bookselling world that the company can buy books from publishers at hugely discounted rates that normal sellers don’t have access to.

“We get a lot of, ‘well, I wanna support local.’ And that’s great, but they have to realize that it costs more money to support local,” explains Parent, who says he sees people coming into the store, taking pictures of books to find later on Amazon. “We can’t compete with them. If we discounted like Amazon, we would be losing money.”

But, say these local bookstore owners, even with Amazon’s slow and steady dominance of the book market, there is one thing they offer that a massive online corporation cannot.

“The connection, the human connection, is really what we trade in,” says Hayden. “You can buy a book just about anywhere. What you get when you come to River Bend and other independent bookstores is a genuine sense of community and authentic experience with your neighbors, conversations that go beyond the superficial and that kind of idea of fake friends online. We’re your real friends. We get to know our customers, we know their kids, we know which book they’re on in the series that they love, and those are experiences that you just cannot replicate with an algorithm.”

“The reason why independent bookstores are successful is because the community, even though they can get it cheaper and faster from Amazon, they will come here to support us because they want a book store in their town,” says Listro.

“In 2018, we were starting to become aware that [Amazon was] really losing something and that all that value wasn’t really there,” adds Hayden. “And what we bring is all added value. So you come in here and a bookseller who knows and loves the books that we carry can help find a recommendation just for you.”

“I think altogether, they’re responsive to the community in ways that big box bookstores and obviously Amazon cannot be in terms of posting readings, carrying books by local authors, and basically having an involvement in the community and mirroring their stock to the communities needs,” says author Matthew Bartlett. A Connecticut native now based in Massachusetts, Bartlett says local bookstores have been extremely important for him since small businesses are more likely to stock books from small and micro-press publishers or from self-published authors.

“They’ll carry the book and send you a check every so often,” he adds. “And particularly because my books tend to take place in the community, it’s good for me to have them in the community.”

Nick Mamatas, an author and Western Connecticut State University alum, agrees. He says that without the flexibility of local stores, his most recent novel might not have been on shelves at all. The Second Shooter came out in November of 2021 and Mamatas says that shipping delays due to ongoing supply chain problems pushed the release slightly. That small slip meant that books ordered by major retailers like Barnes and Noble were returned.

“My local bookstore was very good in that they provided me a space and a link where people would buy the book from their store and I would go into the store and sign the book,” he recalls. “And I sold over 100 copies of the book this way.”

Mamatas also cites discovery as a major advantage of local bookstores. “Most people buying from Amazon know what they want and they type it in when they go there,” he says. “Local bookstores can cater to local tastes, they can cater to specific tastes.”

“That’s another thing about independent bookstores,” says Bartlett. “There’s a lot of personality there. Often the stories reflect the owner’s quirks and strangeness and personality.”

Even a major retailer like Barnes and Noble, with its 600 nationwide locations, sees the benefits of at least appearing like a local business. In 2019, the chain was bought out for $683 million by Elliot Management Corp, a hedge fund. While that might not seem like a traditional way to save bookselling, the fund went to work turning things around starting with the hiring of James Daunt, a 56-year-old British man who has come to be known as one of the most successful booksellers in the business, credited with turning the flagging UK bookstore chain Waterstones back to profitability in 2018.

Daunt set out to do the same for Barnes and Noble that he did across the pond, bringing more shoppers into stores by making a large company feel more like an independent local shop. He cut way back on the number of books purchased as the corporate level and instead turned much of the control over to managers of local stores. The move allowed stores to react better to local interest, buying more or less of a title based on how it performed in their community and shifting their inventory to better reflect their shoppers.  

That sense of community is also what these retailers credit with getting them through the last two years of pandemic shutdowns and uncertainty.

“That was a really interesting time for us because we were fortunate,” recalls Hayden. “We’d had 16 or 18 months in business and we had developed some extremely loyal customers in that time without whom we would never have survived.”

The new owners of Breakwater Books were only in place for a few months before the pandemic forced them to close their doors, but the legacy of the store itself helped keep them in the minds of their customers. After posting a video on social media letting folks know they were still open, they received a huge response.

“We were really, really busy and that felt good driving to someone’s house and they come to the door and tears ’cause you brought them a jigsaw puzzle and a book,” says Listro.

The pandemic shutdown also gave Listro and Parent time to set the store up the way they wanted so soon after taking over, allowing them to reopen a couple months later with a new look and larger inventory.

“We changed literally everything about how we operate,” recalls Hayden. “We were suddenly a bookstore with no store, a bookstore you couldn’t browse. And so we had to try our best to mimic that experience through talking to customers on the phone. We became bookstore therapists and order-takers. We posted pictures of our bookshelves online so that people could browse from their screen. We’ve learned how to use our website and try to make it easy for people to shop with us, and then we switched to virtual events and other kinds of programming that can meet people where they were at that moment and still keep the bookstore relevant and vital.”

Hayden also credits Amazon’s forced pivot to essential items for keeping people shopping local for at least a few things to keep them going during their newfound time indoors.

“Amazon was de-prioritizing the shipping of books because they needed to focus on sending out more essential items,“ she says. “We never stopped thinking of books as an essential item, so we were here for customers throughout that.”

Despite the quiet feud with online retailers, independent bookstores aren’t entirely turning their backs on the internet and technology. Truthfully, it would be almost impossible to forego any connection to the rapidly changing world of eCommerce altogether. But for local bookstores, the online presence largely serves as a small extension of their real in-person business model, or as a means of supporting their purchases and inventory.

Parent does most of the buying for Breakwater Books, spending hours doing research on new titles and paging through hundreds of upcoming offerings from publishers big and small. They get a little help from third-party companies that compile analytics about the books they’re selling, helping them narrow down titles that are popular in their area and with their demographics.

“The other thing we rely on is the customer,” says Parent. “If we don’t have something, customers will come in and order it and then we’ll be like, oh, maybe we should have that in the store.”

“What we do know is customers do not expect us to be Amazon, and we have been offered a lot of grace during this period as people adapt to what does it look like to support small retailers,” says Hayden. “We all know what the alternatives are, but when people choose to work with us, they’re choosing to do so knowing that where we put our investments and our time and our effort is not making our website the sickest, best-looking thing. What we are putting all of our discretionary effort into is running the bookstore and creating the special place in creating these events that provide you with experiences that make your community richer.”

Things are a little bit different for Hartford-based Key Bookstore. Unlike the others, Khamani Harrison got her start entirely online and in the community, opening up a physical location only after seeing success elsewhere.

Key Bookstore specializes in books by Black authors and in titles to aid in self-improvement. Harrison says, to her, Key Bookstore is about creating a community around a culture of reading more than it is about bringing people into a physical location.

“I actually found the language for this last night,” she tells me. “We offer a universal bookstore experience. You do not have to be in Hartford, Connecticut to join our community.”

Harisson prefers to engage with the community where they are, participating in events out in the community and around the state, rather than bringing people into the shop itself, a small location within a warehouse shopping and business center in Hartford. 

“We’re creating an ecosystem and a way so that only if you buy your books from Key Bookstore can you indulge in certain types of experiences, ’cause we’re more of a community,” she says.

Beyond that, Harrison is a strong believer in the power of the evolving internet to change the way people engage both with reading and their community. That includes Web3. Back in April, Harrison and Key Bookstore participated in an event that allowed participants to learn about cryptocurrency by making purchases from local vendors with it.

“It has great potential,” says Harrison. “I solely feel like we got a choke hold on what you can do with the technology. I mean, AR, metaverse. Yeah, it can lead the industry.”

The industry itself might be slow to change, in part based on how people seem to want to buy books. Research has shown that despite innovations in eBooks and audiobooks, most people still want to buy physical books, moreso than they do other types of physical media. Even Barnes and Noble only does 10% of its retail business online.

Despite that slow change, there are still companies trying to find ways to support indie sellers in an online marketplace. Websites like Indie Bound help you find local stores near you and buy from an expansive catalogue while still supporting independent retailers. Ebook readers can find an Amazon alternative in Kobo, an open eReader that allows you to buy eBooks from your local shops to read in their platform. For those who prefer audiobooks, Libro.fm offers the same $15/month subscription as Amazon’s Audible, and lets you choose to support your own local store with your purchases.

However you engage with books and reading, local booksellers are optimistic about the future of their industry and their shops. 

“Brick and mortar bookstores are having a real resurgence,” says Hayden. “I mean, the pandemic, among other things, made a lot of people realize that they wanted to be spending their life differently and make different choices, and so a lot of bookstores have been opening.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean it is without its challenges, as the gentlemen of Breakwater Books are more than willing to admit.

“In retrospect, having done this for three years, we know what it takes to run a bookstore,” says Listro. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy. You don’t just sit there flipping through an old novel and wait for someone to come in and do a bit work. You got a lot to think about, a lot to do physically, mentally, all day long, and even when you’re not here, you’re paying attention to it ’cause it’s yours and you’re responsible.”

“Anybody with kids can appreciate that it’s beneficial to the whole family when there is a place where books are celebrated and you can help kids get excited about that,” says Hayden. “An independent bookstore is a fabulous place to do that, where you’ll get personal attention, you’ll have a space that is unique and beautiful and suited to the kids in your area and offers them books that reflect them in the pages, but also open up new worlds. So no, there cannot be too many independent bookstores.”

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Tricia Ennis

An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment and is always looking for new and interesting stories to tell. She believes in the power of journalism to affect change and to change minds and wants to hear from you about the stories you think about being overlooked.

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